“Scarlet Air: Works by Micah & Whitney Stansell,” on view at Whitespace gallery through May 10, is an enchanting multichannel sound and video experience. This is the second time the husband and wife team, who reside in Atlanta’s College Park neighborhood, have shown at the gallery—this being even more of a collaborative effort with them both fully involved in the video-making process. In the Stansells’ realm, I became a voyeur of their memories of older siblings via three adjacent video projections, three audio experiences, and a collection of video stills. The installation was created for SCAD’s deFINE Art festival held earlier this year in Savannah.
The works focus on the interior world of a dark-haired female heroine with blunt-cut bangs. This is her life projected, the world that she has created for herself, and we are invited in to experience it right along with her. I found the character’s life experiences to be carefully curated rather than limited.
Judging by the hairstyles and clothing, the setting is 1980s suburbia. This seamless collaboration by an intimate couple—which can be the most rewarding and at the same time the most challenging kind of working relationship—succeeds on a many levels. A theme of motion courses throughout—a house collapses, the protagonist falls out of a shopping cart (in a race at the Value Village thrift store where she works), bikes are ridden, a man walks, and a boat progresses through water.
As with the nostalgic “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of interactive fiction, I was able to decide how ambiguous or clear I wanted the narrative to be. The chronology of the female’s story is interspersed with flashes of objects that seem iconic to her. We see a pair of weights, a plaid thermos, a yellow phone, a paperback copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and a row of television sets all tuned to the same station. The fleeting images play with our cognition in a delightful manner.
The exhibition also addresses relationships: the connections between the girl and her female friend, between her and a guy she talks to on the phone, and in the absence of any conversation between her and a man who wanders in and out of this loose history. It felt like the events were happening in real time. Periodically, the images fade to magenta and then melt into a haze of hot pink.
The original score is by Blake Williams and is full of lovely, ambient pulsing tones. Cecil Church is the composer of the songs “Scarlet Air” and “Cornbread,” with the former acting as a kind of calling card for the heroine’s persona, her Southern-tinged mantra. At the end of the video our protagonist sings “Scarlet Air,” facing us, with no apologies or regrets.
The duo’s work is palpable and touching while remaining upbeat. You can choose between two other soundtracks. In one a female voiceover recites smartly penned phrases by poet John Harkey, like “Such order, such fluorescent clarity, so many goods. People and things endure, she thinks, but they slide around, fade, change places, get lost. ” I received each sentence as a mantra. The other soundtrack contains lines from ’80s hit songs that Harkey compiled.
In “Scarlet Air,” mundane activities, such as pouring coffee, reading a book, or talking on the phone are transformed into stunning imagery in which you may find intense meaning.
Sherri Caudell, a poet and writer from Atlanta, is the new poetry editor of Loose Change magazine, published by WonderRoot.